Farewell, The (United States, 2019)July 18, 2019
It’s said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. When it comes to the former, the ramifications touch more than just the individual involved. Different cultures address death differently. Despite this, however, there’s a universality of emotion involved. Therefore, even though Lulu Wang’s sophomore feature, The Farewell, transpires primarily in China and focuses on the “Chinese way” of approaching the end-of-life experience, few will find the experience foreign or impenetrable.
Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) is dying of cancer. The announcement crushes her thirty-ish granddaughter, New Yorker Billi (Awkwafina), like a ton of bricks. The news is being kept from the terminally ill woman – she is told that she is suffering from aftereffects of a previous bout of pneumonia and the ominous-looking abnormalities on her chest scans are “benign shadows.” Her family - comprised of two sons, two daughters-in-law, and two grandchildren – travel to China for one final visit with her. So as not to raise suspicions about their real reason for being there, they concoct a fake wedding for Billi’s cousin, Haohao (Han Chen). What proves to be a joyous occasion for the oblivious Nai Nai is a melancholy experience for her relatives, all of whom must find their own way to say farewell without alerting her to their true motives. The Farewell’s tag line is that it’s “based on an actual lie,” and that says a lot.
Billi and her father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), experience a moral dilemma related to the family’s decision not to tell Nai Nai about her death sentence. Although Haiyan won’t violate the majority opinion, he is unsure that the best course is to keep his mother in the dark. Billi is more conflicted; she finds it difficult to maintain her composure when around her beloved grandmother. When she remarks that hiding a diagnosis from a patient would be illegal in America, she’s reminded that “this isn’t America.” The way writer/director Wang presents Nai Nai’s reactions, we’re left to wonder if she may suspect the truth. This suspicion is strengthened when we learn that she similarly hid her husband’s terminal illness from him. She knows how things work and may suspect that her sickness is less benign than she is being led to believe.
The Farewell skillfully addresses inherent cultural differences without feeling the need to turn didactic. In the West, the rights of the individual – to know, to act, to be informed – are viewed as preeminent. In the East, however, as is mentioned by one of the characters, family concerns take precedence over personal ones. If the family believes it’s in the best interests of the patient to withhold information (or lie about it), that is proper within the cultural context. Billi fights two struggles throughout the film – how to gain closure and how to honor the context in which Nai Nai’s final days are unfolding.
It’s easy for a movie about death and cancer to adopt a mawkish or sentimental tone. Some directors might argue that it’s inevitable. Wang, however, opts for a lighter touch. She finds low-key humor in the actions and interactions of the characters. In many cases, the comedy is of a “fish out of water” variety (such as when Billi pays a visit to a spa) but it never feels forced or artificial. Wang doesn’t undermine her characters in the service of cheap laughs. I was reminded of Jonathan Levine’s 2011 feature, 50/50, which told a serious story about a young man with cancer (and a 50/50 survival chance) that respected the characters while avoiding most of the maudlin pitfalls. The key to making The Farewell effective is to be welcoming to audiences – melodramatic manipulation and tear-jerking is more apt to keep them away. By avoiding that trap, Wang has crafted something that is both appealing and emotionally resonant.
The film represents an opportunity for comedian/rapper/actress Awkwafina to showcase her abilities as a dramatic performer – something she accomplishes with unimpeachable aplomb. Although known for playing eccentric characters (as in Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians), Awkwafina opts for a low-key approach in The Farewell. The result is a grounded individual dealing believably with real-world concerns and emotions. There are times when she’s allowed to engage in quasi-comedic situations but her actions and reactions are never over-the-top. With her awkward grasp on Mandarin and skepticism about the family’s approach to the illness, she represents our entry-point into the story.
It’s probably strange to call a movie about illness and death a “feel good experience,” but Wang has pitched the film perfectly in this regard. Movies about cancer almost always involve chemotherapy and suffering. Movies about death are often suffused with grief and sorrow. The Farewell eschews those genre tropes and instead focuses on existential issues while being honest about the characters, their situations, and their reality. The end result is life-affirming and the average viewer is likely to leave the film feeling uplifted.
Farewell, The (United States, 2019)
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Shuzhen Zhou, Han Chen, Hong Lu, Yongbo Jian
Home Release Date: 2019-11-12
Screenplay: Lulu Wang
Cinematography: Anna Franquesa Solano
Music: Alex Weston
U.S. Distributor: A24
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